Musician Rhiannon Giddens wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room.
The Greensboro native, a rising star as a musician and as an actress , was in Raleigh Tuesday to deliver the keynote speech for the International Bluegrass Music Association conference.
Giddens, known for her political activism, didn’t directly refer to recent events, but debates over broader racial issues served as backdrop. Her speech came after nationwide controversy raged over the weekend, culminating in “take-a-knee” protests at NFL games. Sunday, Giddens herself took a knee with her band at a concert in Nashville.
So she asked a rhetorical question a few minutes into her 30-minute speech.
“How do we get more diversity in bluegrass?” she asked, and then lowered her voice to crack a conspiratorial aside: “Or, why is bluegrass so white?”
The audience laughed, especially since the crowd she addressed was as overwhelmingly Caucasian as the rest of the traditional bluegrass audience.
As race continues to play a role in national discussion, issues of diversity in bluegrass and how to make the industry more inclusive took center stage throughout Tuesday’s opening day of IBMA.
There was an afternoon panel called “Building an Inclusive and Diverse Bluegrass Audience,” featuring team-building exercises to stimulate discussion. Tuesday night’s marquee music showcase was “Shout & Shine: A Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass,” featuring performers spanning the spectrum of race, sexual orientation and physical abilities.
“Inclusiveness is a continued value we have as an association, so that anyone can feel welcome to play our music,” said Paul Schiminger, IBMA executive director, last week. “We want everyone to feel welcome to enjoy it.”
Giddens’ much-anticipated keynote speech set the tone for the annual conference and the week of bluegrass concerts that continue through this weekend in downtown Raleigh.
Her wide-ranging and impassioned presentation touched on everything from the legacy of underappreciated African-American file pioneer Arnold Schultz to the old hayseed television show “Hee Haw.”
Giddens, 40, told her story as a woman of color who had to discover the African-American roots of bluegrass for herself. She also recounted her experience of encountering racial epithets at rural bluegrass festivals.
The former member of the Grammy-winning string band Carolina Chocolate Drops has since earned much success. She has an acclaimed series of solo albums and won the prestigious Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass last year. She also had a recurring role on the fifth season of the CMT drama “Nashville.”
She urged the audience to tear down artificial divisions to make bluegrass inclusive and even paraphrased President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, calling African-American music “part of the foundation of what truly makes America great.”
“The question is not, ‘How do we get diversity into bluegrass?’ but, ‘How do we get diversity back into bluegrass?’” she said, to cheers from the audience, which gave her a standing ovation.
Afterward, Schiminger said of the moment: “Whoa. That was powerful.”
The Peters family has experienced similar encounters as Giddens, and that partly explains why the musical group is absent from this year’s events, despite taking last year’s World of Bluegrass by storm.
In 2016, Giri and Uma Peters – two young children of Indian descent – were a big hit at the first “Shout & Shine” diversity showcase and impressed everyone with their precocious musicianship. Giddens subsequently met with the Peters children at their Nashville home and showed them a tune or two.
But outside the relatively progressive bubble of the IBMA events in Raleigh, the Peters children, now 12 and 10, have had some encounters that trouble the family. They’ve played festivals awash with Confederate flags, and at one such gathering, an adult berated Giri for playing a mandolin that had been made in China.
“In the current political climate, a lot of things that were previously veiled are pretty overt now,” said their mother, Sarika Peters, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University. “We’ve been confronted with this expectation where we’re supposed to just look the other way about a lot of things, like Confederate flags.”
Partly because of the potential for such encounters, the Peters family has been going to more folk festivals than bluegrass ones. This weekend, they’re at the folk-oriented Lotus World Music and Arts Festival in Bloomington, Ind.
“Giri and Uma are such sweet kids, and we’re not looking for an argument,” Peters said. “But we are looking for a more fostering kind of community where it’s OK to be who you are.”
Diversity on stage
If bluegrass still has a ways to go on the diversity front, Tuesday night’s “Shout & Shine” diversity showcase at Raleigh’s Pour House tried to do its part. Now in its second year, organizers hoped to show the music community that being inclusive is an ongoing process and that they shouldn’t be complacent.
The first act up was Tyler Williams, who didn’t let his blindness or cerebral palsy slow him down.
Sitting onstage in dark glasses, he belted out the old Flatt & Scruggs standard “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” in a powerful voice. And he played guitar in his lap, in an unorthodox fingerpicking technique that dazzled the audience.
Last year’s first “Shout & Shine” showcase happened under the shadow of House Bill 2, North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” that has since been repealed. But HB2 did yield one song. Incoming IBMA Hall of Famer Alice Gerrard’s “Keep It Off the Seat” was done as a bawdy sing-along.
Then there were the Ebony Hillbillies, a New York-based African-American string band with the requisite fiddle, banjo, dulcimer and standpoint – but also a full drum kit, backed up by massive amounts of extra percussion.
They took bluegrass into zydeco territory with elements of blues and funk. They also showcased a sense of humor, especially Gloria Thomas Gassaway, who put on a veritable master class on how to flirt with an audience.
In Giddens’ keynote speech, she called bluegrass a “complex Creole music that comes from multiple cultures, African and European and native.”
The Ebony Hillbillies pretty much proved her point.